“We don’t want to be the biggest, we want to be the best.”
This was a standout soundbite of the conversation we had with Tuomas Kallio, the artistic director of Flow Festival. Every day, when we arrived at the disused power station located close to Helsinki’s Senate Square, that simple maxim was hard to ignore. From the tucked away centre of hedonism at Resident Advisor’s backyard stage to the showcases of local talent in the smoky Tiivistämö room, everything was planned and nothing felt like plan B.
This ethos of careful curation implemented in a location as unique as Flow’s is a recipe for a truly singular festival experience. Experimental electronic live experiences like The Space Lady and Arthur Russell’s Instruments were housed in the Voimala building. With a balcony view surrounded by hypnotic visuals supported by University Of The Arts Helsinki, this space would be a brilliant venue in its own right. By Flow’s standards however, it is just another attraction. On leaving, you’d find it hard to miss the giant inflated and illuminated balloon that signposts the – aptly titled – Bright Balloon 360° stage.
This auditorium setup was the platform for one of the undisputed highlights of the weekend: one hour of explosive electronic Shaabi chaos from Islam Chipsy and EEK. With Islam Ta’ta’ and Khaled Mando firing up a percussive tempest in the centre of the dome, they proved themselves to be one of the most electrifying live acts on the planet. Having only had a taste of their live onslaught through tinny YouTube footage from Cairo sidewalks or backrooms, seeing them on this open-air platform at midnight was truly something else.
The Balloon stage was nestled behind Flow’s main square onto which the main stage looked out. Inevitably, this stage played host to the bigger names and hearing Nile Rogers reel off his writing credits for the umpteenth didn’t quite line up with the rest of Flow’s forward-facing programme but we’d be lying if we said the masses weren’t loving it. Before venturing up to the other area of stages, the Art Laboratory displayed some of the more experimental visual art of Flow’s lineup. German artist Jana Salby’s piece All Day Everyday / Mini Videos was a standout, a mixture of home footage and landscape shots creating an immersive blend of the personal and the general.
Past the Laboratory, the Black Tent was rattled by the strobe-heavy trance intensity of Evian Christ, the woozy rap anthems of iLoveMakonnen and a typically moshpit-stirring show from Skepta and Shorty. We ended our weekend at the Black Tent for Future Brown’s set with the help of Ruff Sqwad’s Roachee. It was the second time Fatima Al Qadiri was seen going in at Flow (she was there for Islam Chipsy). A surprise standout set took place at the Lapin Kulta big top next door where Tyler, The Creator came through with one of his best shows in our memory. A mixture of dim lighting and little in the way of goofy jokes in between songs gave the set an intensity. Through this focus he came across as the artist he’s always said he is, and for the first time in a while, we were excited about the artist he could become.
Flow really isn’t in the same realm as British festivals. It is a wholly different experience. The focus on cuisine (special mention to the offerings of Richard McCormick’s Sandro stand) and the distinct lack of noticeable debauchery are just two of the countless differences. The event’s artistic director even told us that he takes little inspiration from other festivals. The elements that influence the Flow experience are more likely to be design houses, gastronomical up-and-comers or conceptual artists but it never felt too highbrow for its own good. For British festival-goers, it is a taste of something different which is definitely worth trying out. A major festival that isn’t too fussed with expanding but focused firmly on improving.